There are a lot of theories as to the best way to defend LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Some believe you let James get his and focus on stopping everyone else. Others think you should send a double and get the ball out of his hands, forcing his teammates to step up. And then there is the approach of throwing a bunch of different looks at James to keep him off balance.
The Boston Celtics largely threw all of that out the window in Game 1 and simply played the defense they’ve been playing all year. They trust each player on the floor to do his job as part of a five man unit (cue cliché about “five fingers, one fist”). The Celtics switch everything, rarely double and focus on keeping whoever they are defending from getting a clean look at the hoop. In Game 1, Boston executed the defensive scheme they’ve used all year to a T.
One of the problems with recent iterations of the Celtics was that they were simply too small to play the type of switch-heavy defense Brad Stevens prefers. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley were by far the smallest backcourt in the NBA, at just 5’9’’ and 6’2’’ respectively. Jae Crowder was strong enough to guard bigs, but he didn’t have the length to bother anyone at the rim or to get in passing lanes. Amir Johnson is a battler, but, again, didn’t have the length (or the quickness anymore) to bother drivers in the paint.
The Celtics now play a group of quick, active, long-armed defenders and switch everything. The only player defenses can hope to target is Terry Rozier, and he uses his speed and quickness to make up for whatever he lacks in strength and size. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all use ridiculous length to bother shots and, just as importantly, to get their hands on passes. And then you have the Marcuses: Messrs. Smart and Morris.
Coming into the series there was a lot of talk about how Marcus Morris was brought to Boston to help slow down James. This was talk that Morris even brought up himself in the days leading up to Game 1. When you talk, you better back it up. Morris did that for one game at least.
James actually makes this shot, but it as well-contested as you can get without fouling. What is important to note is that Morris fights through a screen and then he’s on an island. No help is coming from Boston. Morris keeps his feet moving, takes away James driving to his right hand in the paint and then contests the shot while staying down. James’ jumper is virtually unblockable, so all jumping is going to do is get you an unnecessary foul. This is important to note in the next couple of clips.
Morris again gets through a (halfhearted) screen. He moves his feet and keeps James from getting to his dominant hand. He stays light on his feet and contests another difficult fallaway jumper.
The best defense on this clip happens right at the beginning. Morris reads the screen coming from Tristan Thompson. He doesn’t even attempt to fight through it and goes all the way around it, meeting James at the catch at the top of the key. Once again, Morris is on an island, but moves his feet well and contests a jumper, again staying down, and forces a miss.
Speaking of islands, the Celtics don’t hesitate to leave Marcus Smart on an island against anyone. He defended everyone from George Hill to Kevin Love and everyone in between in this game.
Smart and Semi Ojeleye switch just as the clip is starting. James immediately turns his back and starts trying to back Smart down from about three feet behind the arc. Smart half lets him, because he knows James isn’t going to his left hand with Brown lurking nearby. Because of this, Smart pulls the chair a bit and sneaks around to poke the ball away for a steal.
This one has a lot going on. Smart and Morris have switched, leaving Smart on James again. He starts the clip by fronting, which brings Aron Baynes, who is in the opposite corner, into help position. Because Morris puts good pressure on Hill, the Cavs can’t hit the quick ball-reversal to get it to Love for an open jumper in the corner Baynes is helping off. Hill instead tries to hit the perceived mismatch with James on Smart. Now, re-watch the clip and keep an eye on the rest of the Celtics. Love drifts up to the break, while Kyle Korver re-positions to the corner. Baynes and Brown don’t overreact and simply switch the action. Everyone clears out for James to go at Smart, but Boston trusts him to hold his ground. Because Smart does, and Baynes holds his position after switching onto to Korver, the Celtics come up with an easy steal.
One last clip, because it shows off just how good Horford has been all postseason at defending big ball handlers from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Ben Simmons to LeBron James.
Look at all the switches! Horford has James, Ojeleye has Hill, Smart has Thompson in the paint and Rozier has Smith at the arc. Only Jaylen Brown is on the guy (Jeff Green) he started the possession on. As for the play itself, James tries to go baseline, but Horford slides and cuts it off. From there, he just stays down and uses every bit of his 6’10’’ height and 7’0’’ wingspan to make James take the most difficult shot he’ll take all game. Horford knows it is late clock and James has to get one up, so he just contests. No trying to strip the ball or block the shot. Just make it difficult and trust your teammates to corral the rebound. If James makes this one, you just laugh and head back down the court.
The Boston Celtics don’t have the singular lockdown defender to throw at James. It has to be a combination of players doing their job, while trusting their teammates to do their jobs. Because of that, the Celtics aren’t afraid of James torching them. They aren’t going to double, unless it is in a very advantageous spot to do so. James isn’t likely to shoot 5-of-16 overall and 0-for-5 from three with seven turnovers again. But by defending him straight up and smartly contesting shots without fouling, Boston gives themselves the best opportunity to both slow down James and shut down the rest of the Cavaliers.